“Mortui vivos docent”? A day in the life of an osteoarchaeologist

Are the dead really teaching the living, as this latin expression claims? And if so, what is it that they are teaching us? I am an osteoarchaeologist at the Institute of Anthropology “Francisc I. Rainer” (Bucharest, Romania), and I am surrounded by the dead. Hence, the way I am spending this glorious day of archaeology is looking at a 100 year old osteological collection and asking myself: what is is that this particular dead individuals tell us? As any osteoarchaeologist can say, there are numerous answers to this question- one can use the collection for perfecting age/sex determination methods, for studying pathologies, for various analyses (DNA, isotopes) etc. However, I am interested in a different story.

The Institute, which was founded in 1940 by the Romanian anatomist and anthropologist Francisc I. Rainer, houses an extensive osteological collection, part of which comprises a couple of thousand skulls gathered in the first half of the 20th century through the efforts of Francisc I. Rainer. It was designed  for understanding the variability of the Romanian population, teaching and researching pathological modifications or documenting the variability in sex and age dimorphism.

Thus, the bodies of several individuals who died in hospitals and morgues were dismembered and their skull were archived, neatly arranged on shelves in wooden cabinets. What can they say about the context which led to the creation of this human archive? What can they teach us about the beginnings of the physical anthropology and how can they help us understand how was the human body represented and viewed in these early studies?  Such human remains are a legacy of a period in the history of anatomy and physical anthropology when the body was a valuable commodity, sought for its value to generate knowledge” about a human being. One of the stories that is part of this epoch says that around 1930, the Faculty of Medicine in Bucharest’s porter displayed an interesting malformation of the skull and, being aware of the interest that arose from his brain, he sold it in advance to three different professors. When he eventually died, all 3 of them came to collect the brain for further studies, and to their surprise they found out that they all had proof of ownership.

Maceration room at the Institute of Anthropology. Source: L'oeuvre scientifique de Fr. J. Rainer, 4. 1947. Bucharest: Monitorul Oficial și Imprimeriile statului.

Maceration room at the Institute of Anthropology. Source: L’oeuvre scientifique de Fr. J. Rainer, 4. 1947. Bucharest.


So, my task is a fascinating and not at all easy one: browsing through the archives, documents, publications and images left to us from these early days of anthropology, I try and see how was the human body talked about or drawn, what aspects were brought into view and why? Why would Rainer choose to describe an individual through his/her sex/age/cause of death and pathology? Why was the space designed as it was and how was the human body broken down and accommodated in different rooms? How would a recording sheet of a living human subject have looked like and how was the data interpreted?

In short, mine is a journey through the traces of the past, in the realm of the dead- an archaeology of the methods and theories of osteoarchaeology and physical anthropology. The final goal of my day (and of the days to come) is to put the “Mortui vivos docent” question in an ethical perspective: are we happy with the implications of studying and archiving human remains the way we do? Should we do things differently?

One thought on ““Mortui vivos docent”? A day in the life of an osteoarchaeologist

Comments are closed.